The Wages of Villainy
Possible Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Be ye forewarned!
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones recently. I’m significantly behind, but never fear – I read the books years ago, and I know everything that happens. More than many of you, probably. It has, however, been a while since I’ve read the first three books. I just finished watching the second season, which puts me somewhere in Book 2 (though where book two ended and book three began is unclear to me, since I read them back-to-back). One of the things I’m remembering as I watch is just how many awful people there are in Westeros – Cercei, Tywin, Joffrey, the Boltons, the Freys, the Greyjoys, the Mountain, and on and on. So very often, the end of each episode leaves me feeling sad or depressed. So very rarely do the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
This is, essentially, what we want, right? We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Oh, sure, we’ll wait for it. We’ll wait for a long damned time. Hell, I read all five books waiting for it, always hoping and praying that the payoff, when it comes, will be oh so sweet. I want Arya to shiv Cercei. I want Sansa to push Littlefinger out the Moon Door. I want Danerys to cross the goddamned Narrow Sea and bathe Westeros in cleansing fire.
Do I get any of these things?
Well, put simply, no, I do not. In fact, I’m beginning to lose faith that I will. Oh, sure, bad things happen to the bad guys sometimes. Joffrey’s death was especially satisfying, truly, but for every bad guy that gets his, there’s a dozen good guys who unjustly meet their end. If I’m honest, I’m getting a little tired of it.
There’s something very Anglo-Saxon going on in Game of Thrones. Those old barbarians – the guys who brought us Beowulf – were all about death and loss. Beowulf itself is basically a love-story to the idea of death. They knew we all had it coming to us, so for them what was important was how you faced it. Everything good in your life – all you had built, all you had done – was just one asshole with a sword away from being ruined. It happened all the time, and the Anglo Saxon skops wouldn’t let you forget it. See this passage from Beowulf:
…and soon it stood there, /finished and ready, in full view, / the hall of halls. Heorot was the name /[Hrothgar] had settled on it, whose utterance was law. / Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table. The hall towered, / its gables wide and high and awaiting/ a barbarous burning. That doom abided, / but in time it would come…
Lines 76-84, Heaney translation
You can’t even get one line past the description of the beauty of Hrothgar’s hall before we are told how it all was going to burn down. Dark stuff, guys. You can’t have nice things, because the world is full of awful people. All you can do is learn to roll with the punches and find a way to survive, just like Sansa has.
For me, this frustrates me. I’m reading fantasy fiction, and so I want my cathartic victory to come along. I want somebody to ride in and kick some ass in the name of decency, if not righteousness. Maybe this is overly simplistic of me, and I by no means am taking away from the emotional power of Martin’s story – he knows how to kick a reader in the guts better than anybody I’ve ever read. It’s just that sometimes, as much as the pain and the pathos is fun, I also want to get up and cheer. I don’t do that enough in Westeros, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.
In the end, if the villains get away with it for long enough, the audience at some point will become inured to their faults and crimes. They will become not monsters, but the norm. We will stop caring about the arrival of justice or even vengeance. This is what happened to me by the end of A Dance With Dragons – acceptance of the world Martin has created, in all its warty glory. I don’t expect much out of it; I won’t get attached. He’s lost me. There’s only so many times you can be abused before you move on, right?
Posted on June 3, 2014, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged books, fantasy, Game of Thrones, George RR Martin, television, vengeance, villains. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.